"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Clergy unveil petition as president leans 'heavily' toward university as site
Dallas News
By HOLLY K. HACKER, TODD J. GILLMAN and SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News
January 19, 2007

Already facing sharp questions from its faculty, Southern Methodist University is now being pressed by some Methodist clergy to drop its pursuit of the Bush library.

A small group of United Methodist bishops and ministers launched a national petition drive Thursday asking SMU to withdraw from negotiations for the George W. Bush presidential library.

The petition includes the signatures of two current and eight retired bishops out of about 170 current and retired bishops worldwide. Five other Methodist ministers also signed.

In one day, the online petition drew more than 4,000 names. While many signed in jest, comments from others show the petition became a touchstone for feelings about President Bush. Some key Methodist clergy and campus leaders quickly denounced the petition, saying it didn't represent the views of a majority of Methodists.

The drive began the same day Mr. Bush said in a TV interview that he's "leaning heavily" toward choosing SMU to host his library. The remarks were his first on the library's location. A selection committee announced last month that SMU was the lone finalist.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore declined to comment on the petition, referring questions to the selection team led by former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who also declined to comment.

But Mr. Bush did seek Thursday to quell recent complaints from SMU professors who have expressed concerns on plans for a public policy institute that has been likened to the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"I understand there are some who have reservations, and my admonition to them, or my advice to them is, just understand that a library and institute would enhance education. It would be a place for interesting discussion," Mr. Bush said in an exclusive television interview with the Belo Capital Bureau.

Petition organizers say some of Mr. Bush's actions, such as invading Iraq, detaining prisoners without a trial and authorizing the use of torture, violate Methodist beliefs. Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush are Methodists.

"As United Methodists, we believe that the linking of his presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate," reads the petition, which is posted at protectsmu.org.

Campus and some church officials said Thursday that the petition organizers don't speak for most Methodists.

"I think it's a fringe group, a marginal group without any standing other than the fact they happen to be one of 8 million United Methodists," said the Rev. Mark Craig, an SMU trustee and senior minister of Highland Park United Methodist Church, to which the Bushes belong.

Bishop Scott Jones, another SMU trustee, said the denomination encompasses many opinions, adding that he believes the petitioners represent the liberal wing of the church on social issues.

"There are people like this group who are passionately opposed to George Bush. There are others in our church who are passionately in favor, and even support the war in Iraq," Dr. Jones said.

However, Kenneth L. Carder, a retired Methodist bishop who teaches at Duke University, said he knows the bishops who signed and believes they represent a broad political spectrum, from conservative to moderate to liberal.

One of the petition's organizers is the Rev. Andrew J. Weaver, a 1978 graduate of SMU's Perkins School of Theology.

"Because SMU is owned by the United Methodist Church, the imposition of a George W. Bush library, museum and think tank at SMU will irreparably connect the denomination with this presidency," Dr. Weaver said in a written statement. "Members of the UMC, therefore, should be able to express their opinion on this matter before a final decision is reached."

Mr. Craig said he believes the petition has more to do with politics than what's best for SMU. He said the vast majority of his congregation's 13,000 members favor having the library at SMU, "mainly because they realize what a great historic value it would be to the university and the city of Dallas."

Bush says decision near

In his interview Thursday, Mr. Bush said he is close to making a decision on the location of the library, which would include the public policy institute.

Although the institute would report to a separate Bush foundation, some faculty members fear it would harm SMU's academic independence.

"It would be a place for people to be able to express their views and write and think. And these universities, I think, understand that and are excited about the prospects, and so am I," he said, referring to SMU and the two finalists it appears to have beaten out: Baylor University and the University of Dallas.

In response, U.S. history professor Benjamin Johnson said, "I think the faculty has some decisions to make, too." By that, he means whether the library, museum and institute are compatible with SMU's educational mission.

David Freidel, an anthropology professor and former president of the faculty senate, said he welcomes Mr. Bush's observations about the institute being a place for interesting discussion.

"SMU's motto is 'The Truth Shall Set You Free,' and freedom to pursue the truth is at the heart of this university community," Dr. Freidel wrote in an e-mail.

Petition comments

Petition organizers are asking any Methodist to sign. Many who signed on Thursday said they are Methodist, though some people signed anonymously and some said they belong to other denominations.

One person wrote, "I am Lutheran, but I will become a Methodist if you can stop the Bush library from being built at SMU."

Some signers opposed the petition, however. One person using the name "Stay Out of Politics" wrote, "As a lifelong Methodist your lack of respect of the presidency, ignorance of Bush's altruistic objective, and lack of foresight embarrass me."

Some people signed multiple times, and others used names like Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Satan.

Mr. Craig and Dr. Jones said the petition would have no influence on them as SMU trustees. And as trustees, they – not the United Methodist Church – have the final say on decisions that SMU makes about the library.

The United Methodist Church owns SMU and grants operating authority to the board of trustees. Half of the 40 board members are Methodist, and three are bishops. The church approves trustees every four years. SMU started planning for the library six years ago.

Dr. Weaver said the petition organizers are deeply troubled by Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, detain prisoners without trial and allow torture.

"I think that George Bush has been, in his presidency, so inconsistent with fundamental Christianity that he should not be associated with a Methodist university," Dr. Weaver said. "Methodist means decency, and this man has not been decent."

Mr. Craig came to Mr. Bush's defense, saying, "He's a good Methodist and anyone who says other than that is being grossly judgmental."

The church's Council of Bishops, which has some oversight over the denomination, passed a resolution in 2005 expressing concern about the Iraq war. More than 100 active and retired bishops signed a second statement describing the U.S. attack on Iraq as "unjust and immoral."

But that doesn't mean all the bishops oppose a Methodist campus hosting the Bush library.

Library OK with some

Dr. Carder, who helped draft the bishops' statement opposing the Iraq war, said he hasn't decided whether he would oppose having the Bush library at SMU.

William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference and former dean of the chapel at Duke University, opposed the Iraq war but supports the Bush library at SMU.

He was a Duke professor when campus opposition helped derail the university's bid for the presidential library of Richard Nixon, an alumnus of the law school.

"It was a great loss to Duke not to get the Nixon library," Bishop Willimon said. "Universities are supposed to be places for intellectuals, and intellectuals are supposed to be curious about everything. ... Wherever the Bush library ends up, I hope scholars will be standing in line the day it opens to get their hands on the papers and figure out what happened" with the Iraq war.

And no matter what bishops think, they don't speak for the church.

"The only body that can speak for the denomination as a whole is the General Conference, which meets only once every four years," said Ken Bedell, associate general secretary of the UMC's division of higher education.

He said SMU trustees must decide the matter for themselves. He noted, though, that the SMU bylaws appear to give the denomination's South Central Jurisdiction – which includes North Texas – some review over the sale of university property.

Baylor waits in wings

Developments at SMU are being watched closely in Waco, where Baylor University and civic leaders spent six years wooing the library and the last year holding meetings to get input from faculty and students.

"That's not the climate here in Waco at all," said Mayor Virginia DuPuy, adding that she was surprised at the backlash in Dallas.

Ms. DuPuy said her city wouldn't try to poach as those talks play out. "We are waiting and just being respectful of the overall process," she said.

But she added: "Oh yes, it would be welcome in Waco. We stand ready to help the Bush library search team in any way that we can."

Tommye Lou Davis, director of the Bush library project for Baylor, noted that when Mr. Evans called Dec. 21 to let Baylor know the committee was entering exclusive talks with SMU, he emphasized that "no final decision had been made."

The Baylor proposal includes a library, museum, conference center, a learning center named for the first lady, a Center for Democracy, a foundation for faith-based initiatives and a baseball park.

A spokeswoman for the University of Dallas, the other finalist, declined to comment.

E-mail hhacker@dallasnews.com , tgillman@dallasnews.com and samhodges@dallasnews.com

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